The return of the Point-of-View Nazis, Part II: ve haf veys of making your POV singular

Yesterday, I re-introduced the Point-of-View Nazi, that fine ilk of professional reader who positively insists that the ONLY way to conduct a third-person narrative is to focus upon a single protagonist for the entire duration of the book. Since — as insightful new reader Betsy commented on yesterday’s post — tight third-person is so very in at the moment, the POVN is always eager to tell aspiring writers that their work is going down in flames if they take the smallest step toward omniscience or multiple protagonists.

To sum up my feeling on the subject as expressed in my last post: piffle.

I’m eager to move through a few more craft topics before we move on to the Month of Marketing that will be June, but I can’t resist spending another day on the POVNs: they are such a beautiful example of writing advice-givers who apparently do not make the smallest distinction between Thou Shalt Do This dicta and style tips that I want to spend today giving you a concrete look at what a difference taking such advice as absolute can do. So if my long-time readers will forgive me, I’m going to take another look at what a difference taking their advice can make.

This may seem like an odd thing for a professional writing advice-giver to say, but I don’t think that it’s ever a good idea to take ANYONE else’s opinion on your book as gospel. Even mine; one of the reasons I go on at such length about the rationale behind industry norms and stylistic tips is so you have enough information to make up your own minds about your writing choices.

I was notorious for this attitude back when I was teaching at the university, incidentally. Professors would come fuming (or laughing) into the faculty lounge, exclaiming, “I’ve got another of your old students, Anne! She’s questioning EVERYTHING I say.”

“Good,” I would say. “You wouldn’t want it otherwise, would you?”

I gather that some would, the POVNs among them.

Philosophically, I find POVNs’ idea that there are only two ways to tell a story — the first person singular and a tight third person singular, where the narration remains rigidly from the point of view of a single actor in the drama, usually the protagonist — troubling, and not especially conducive to the production of good art. In my experience, there are few real-life dramatic situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance.

Watch a few randomly-chosen days’ worth of Court TV, if you doubt this. I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

And the disagreement amongst writing experts on this point tends to support my argument, doesn’t it?

I also believe that there are very, very few people who appear to be exactly the same from the POV of everyone who knows them. Most people act, speak, and even think rather differently around their children than around their adult friends, just as they often have slightly (or even wildly) different personalities at home and at work.

If anyone can find me a real, live person who acts exactly the same in front of his three-year-old daughter, his boss’ boss, the President of the United States, and a stripper at a bachelor party, I shall happily eat my hat. Either the person in question has serious social adjustment problems (on the order of Forrest Gump’s), or that perhaps the person who THINKS this guy is always the same in every context is lacking in imagination. Or simply doesn’t know the guy very well. Almost nobody can be completely portrayed from only a single point of view — which is why sometimes narratives that permit the protagonist to be seen from the POV of other characters can be most illuminating.

But that’s just my opinion. Read a bunch of good novels and make up your own mind.

Regardless of your own POV preferences, it’s important that you know that there are people out there who will want to impose their stylistic preferences upon yours, because they turn up with some fair frequency in agencies, as contest judges, as editors, and as critics. They are statistically more likely to be Baby Boomers than Gen Xers or Gen Yers, however, so they are less likely to be agency screeners than in years past. (Being a manuscript screener is typically someone’s first job in the business, not one kept for decades.)

Nevertheless, they do turn up, sometimes in agents’ chairs and behind editorial desks, so it’s best to be prepared for them.

When your work is attacked with phrases like, “well, it’s more or less impossible to pull off an omniscient narrator in contemporary fiction,” resist the temptation to throw the entire Great Books fiction shelf at the speaker. Recognize that you are dealing with a POVN, and take everything he says with a gargantuan grain of salt. You can’t convince a true believer; you’ll only wear yourself out with trying. Cut your losses and move on.

But before you do, consider the possibility that the critique may be useful to apply to your manuscript of the moment.

You’re surprised I said that, aren’t you? But really, POVNs do occasionally have a point: too-frequent POV switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow. One of the more common first-novel megaproblems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence — and therein lies the POVN’s primary justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing.

But heck, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion, isn’t it? When in doubt, give each perspective its own paragraph. It won’t protect you from a POVN’s rage, of course, but it will make your scene easier for your reader to follow.

Let’s take a look at how the POVN works in practice, so you may recognize him in the wild, to decide whether you want to join forces with him or not. Suppose that Jane Austen took the following paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to her writing group, which contained a cabal of POVNs:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

As an editor, I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons here, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose, right? Yet, as the POVNs in her group would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives rolling around promiscuously together in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry… (Elizabeth’s POV)

…but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. (the POV of an external observer)

Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her… (Darcy’s POV)

Now, a POVN in our Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly urge her to pick a single perspective (Elizabeth’s would be the logical choice) and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly — or, more commonly, send out an editorial memo saying that he MIGHT consider buying the book, but only if Jane revised it so all of the action is seen from Elizabeth’s perspective only).

Let’s say that Jane was cowed by the vehemence of the POVNs and scuttled home to take their advice. The resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from her original intention. It would probably ending up reading rather like this:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. Darcy remained silent.

Legitimately, that is all that she could keep, if she were going to please the POVNs completely. Comparatively terse, isn’t it?

My gut feeling is that Jane would not be particularly satisfied with this revision, both because some characterization has been lost, as well as some long-term plot clues. At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. This would, of course, mean that his proposal would be a greater plot twist, coming out of the blue, but the reader would also end up with absolutely no idea how, beginning from initial indifference, Elizabeth charms began to steal over Darcy, over his own objections.

Which would mean, really, that the title of the book should be changed to just PREJUDICE. And since PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a quote from another novel (Fanny Burney’s excellent-but-dark 1782 novel CECILIA), I’m inclined to think that Aunt Jane would have disliked that result.

Yet if I may pull up a chair in Jane’s writing group for a moment (oh, like this whole exercise wouldn’t require time travel), allow me to point out how easily a single stroke of a space bar clears up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.

Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

The moral here, my friends, is once again that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true in every case. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for a good, long while.

You may well find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of this treatment works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the beliefs of others.

Now that our collective loins are girded for possible knee-jerk objections to multiple perspective narratives, I feel I can move on to the topic of juggling them with a clear conscience. Tune in tomorrow, and keep up the good work!

8 Replies to “The return of the Point-of-View Nazis, Part II: ve haf veys of making your POV singular”

  1. ’m not a POVN myself. Some of my favorite books are told from an omni POV. I just don’t write in omni myself because I think it’s d*mned hard to do it well! I think a lot of new writers take a multi-perspective POV on and… get in a bit over their heads. This kind of POV is easy to mess up. I’m threatened by it, so I stay away. For now.

    Does anybody else out here use a tight third person with a multi-protag narrative, switching characters only at chapter changes? Some of my favorite books are written this way, and I like to get to know all my characters. I think I’d get bored with just one.

    Should I worry that the POV nazi will get me?

    1. I’ve seen a number of good manuscripts with that format lately, Karen — it can be devastatingly effective. I like the cleanness of the switching-at-chapter’s-end structure, because it removes any possibility of confusion about perspective.

      Might a POVN take exception to this? Possibly — but typically, the objection isn’t phrased as being about disliking multiple protagonists. Usually, it’s phrased as, “I got involved with one character — and then the manuscript tricked me about who the REAL protagonist was!” Essentially, though, it’s the same objection.

      So yes, a POVN would probably dislike this choice, but that doesn’t mean that you should change it. As you say, you get bored with only one perspective, and in the end, it’s YOUR unique voice that should be coming across here.

      And what you want are an agent and editor who fall in love with your voice, right?

  2. I just finished reading a novel where the protagonists (half brothers) constantly bicker and every conversation is bickering. Even wehn one saves the other from imminent death, the affection is shown through sarcasm.
    It’s not believable and it’s the product of a POVN.

    And you are right when you say that other characters suffer from being hollow or one-dimensional because of the restricted POV.

    1. Lordy, Dave, that book sound positively purgatorial. (And your screen name is pretty fabulous, btw. I am now picturing you as one of the family of abstract shapes in that wonderful Ray Bradbury short story about the child born into a different dimension from its parents.)

  3. I love a book where an omnisient narrator pokes his/her head in periodically, like Dickens or the Narnia Chronicles or the Dukes of Hazzard (just to lower the tone slightly).

    I guess I’ve got three POVs going on in my current project — the hero’s, the heroine’s, and the occasional omniscient description. I basically switch between the two main characters’ POV but always indicate the switch with a blank line. Since this is my first attempt at writing a novel, I thought I’d better stick to something simple and straightforward.

    For the record, I never heard of “head-hopping” until I started reading a lot of writing blogs. And since I never noticed it as a reader, I can’t believe it matters THAT much. But then, I’m a terrible skimmer.

  4. This is more on “writer truisms” than simply POVNs, but I’ve found my first instinct is best–not necessarily with drafting, but if I hear something from someone about my work, or about work in particular, and it strikes me as making sense right off, then I tend to keep coming back to it and integrating it into my work. If my first instinct is to disregard, then I tend to throw it away for good.

    Trust your instincts.

  5. Would that all writers had your self-confidence, Betsy! That’s a terrific stand to take. POVNs SOUND so authoritative, they often shake the hearer, so the reminder to take the time to check one’s own bearings is excellent.

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